I wish Debbie Friedman had been alive to hear what was said about her at her funeral.
A similar thought occurs to me when I attend other people’s funerals but never did I feel it so acutely as I did this past Tuesday as I watched the live-streaming of Debbie’s memorial service on-line along with seven thousand other people who, like me, were singing and crying at their desks, on their iPhones, in their living rooms, and sending messages to each other simultaneously of sorrow, comfort, and gratitude for her life.
Our eyes were riveted to the bimah at Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Ana, California, our ears open wide to those who played her music, offered prayers, spoke of her so lovingly. I desperately wanted Debbie to hear all that because she always doubted herself and often felt frustrated by the Jewish Establishment’s resistance to her message that music is the surest bridge between self and sanctity, between synagogue liturgy and the Jewish soul.
What was so poignant to me was how she never blamed others for what happened to her — neither for her physical infirmities nor the emotional angst born of rejection — but rather tried to convert her struggle and her suffering into a learning opportunity.
In April, 2006, after one of those experiences of rejection, she emailed me, "I am teary as I write to you. I don’t know why the road has to be so bumpy. I don’t believe it is to build character. Perhaps there are some lessons not yet learned, some sensitivities not yet acquired."
Debbie was among those honored in 2004 — along with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Judith Shapiro, then President of Barnard College; Sally Priesand; the first woman to be ordained as an American rabbi; artist Judy Chicago, author Ruth Gruber, Orthodox feminist, Blu Greenberg; and about a dozen others — by the Jewish Women’s Archive and the National Women’s Philanthropy of the UJC at a Lion of Judah event in Washington, D.C. marking 350 years of Jewish female achievement in America.
More than twelve hundred people were in the grand ballroom when Debbie approached the podium, guitar in hand, to accept her honor, and announced that she was going to introduce a composition she had just written, "Shma Koleinu." We listened to her strum her introduction, which went on for an unusually long time, and then admit that she couldn’t remember the lyrics.
Since Debbie famously could not read music, she had no score to consult; she apologized for the delay and just keep strumming and thinking until her formidable brain retrieved the words. It was well worth the wait. "Shma Koleinu," whose birth pangs were witnessed by 1200 women back in 2004, has become a treasured piece in the liturgical canon of Debbie Friedman.
Afterward, she told me how appalled she was at what she’d done. She fiercely berated herself for her memory slippage. It took a lot of convincing to make her forgive herself and understand that she had given the audience a rare gift, the opportunity to witness raw creativity in action as we watched her reconstruct the lyrics from the ground up.
In an email dated March 6, 2007, she commented on a piece in The Jewish Week about whether Norman Finkelstein, given his Holocaust critiques and his leftist views, should be allowed to speak on campus. "I think the issue is there are so many who think if we don’t hear the [anti-Israel] material it won’t exist, it will go away and we won’t be shamed or embarrassed by it and we won’t be hurt by it."
As was typical of Debbie, she didn’t just spout her opinion, she offered to help fix the problem, and was prescient in understanding its magnitude. "I am proposing to the Hillel leadership that I be funded to go to several campuses and do concerts followed the next day or afternoon with a presentation by some moderate who can help educate the students and inform them as to what is happening in Israel and how they can respond to anti-Israel and anti-Jewish problems on Campus in an intelligent and respectful way. Hopefully the students will learn from this and will understand how they might be able to build bridges in the communities on campus. Maybe by some miracle they will not bury their heads in the sand like some of their parents have.
"There is potential for these young ones if we get them now. They are not politically involved at all. They seem pretty passive.
"In my concerts, I talk about breaking down walls and building community. It happens one step at a time but it can happen. First we need to be able to have access to the students…"
Many of Debbie’s professional disappointments were rooted in her encounters with sexism in the Jewish world, as is clear from her next paragraph: "It is so frustrating that men can make things happen so much more quickly than women. If [man’s name withheld] wanted to do [the concert on campuses] he would have had it ready by now. I have been asking to do this for over 2 years and now people are first beginning to listen.
"I am working on a project in the south to try to bring healing services to their [Jewish] communities. I began working on this immediately after Katrina…just now are they beginning to respond. I have wanted to help the New Orleans community rebuild and fundraise so they can revitalize their community. I announced something from the stage in December  during a concert there. I said, ‘I don’t know how to make it happen, but we will make it happen.’ …a man who is the director of the JCC called and I told him to write me a proposal about what they need.
"I wrote back and told the man…that this will never come to be unless the entire [Jewish] community joins together to make this happen. It has to be every sect working to help the orthodox community rebuild their schools and shul or it won’t work Had I been a man, I KNOW it would not have taken this long for them to listen. They would not have patted me on the back…in this patronizing, ‘what a sweet thing to think to do’ way. It wasn’t until I mentioned it to [man’s name withheld] that something happened. It was almost overnight."
At the funeral, Rabbi David Ellenson, President of HUC, read an excerpt from Debbie’s letter to Alice Shalvi, founder of the Israel Women’s Network, on the subject, fittingly enough, of death and dying. Debbie wrote it in response to my call to the women in our Rosh Hodesh group, whose 20th anniversary is coming up this year, for their memories about the early days. Alice had recalled an early session in which she speculated on the meaning of her own death. Nothing captures Debbie’s remarkable contemplative depths, powers of self-criticism, and rigorous honesty better than her response to Alice:
"I hardly ever made it to the Rosh Chodesh group. , Most of the time it was because I was out of the city and sometimes it was because I was too frightened to be amongst so many people. Given who I am and what I do, one would think that would not be the case.
"These few comments about my fears, though self indulgent, are relevant to what I think to be the subject of one’s own death. I think we are frightened of our own death for a few reasons.
First of all, we wonder if we have given anything to the world, enuough that we will be remembered? Then, we are terrified we will are going to be forgotten? That we will have lived and worked hard to make a difference in the world and it will all have been for nothing because it is forgotten and we are forgotten. That, in fact, we are nothing more than dust and ashes. (I am not saying this is conscious)
"Another reason is because death is an unknown…and I like to plan my day for the most part. I like to know what is waiting for me. I don’t mind a bit of spontaneity, but I would prefer to know more about Olam Haba.
"But I think the thing I fear most about death is my fear of life. I haven’t yet mastered the art of living. How can I leave this world when I haven’t yet learned to live in it and manage it? If I don’t know how to live with openness and without fear, how will I ever be able to look at death’s face when we meet? How can I possibly be gracious? It wouId seem that before I die I must learn to live life without fear. I must learn to live with chein and chesed and a loving and open heart. Once I accept this, embrace the beauty of this world, both life, and the way in which I see death will be transformed.
"This is not an intellectual exercise that can be remedied by a passage from text. The answers will come from the text of our experience. This is clearly a matter of the soul with which we must struggle. Having said all I have said, I don’t know the answer to your question…I am looking."
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. Magazine, is a writer and journalist focusing on feminist and Jewish issues.